When I teach classes about the history of Presbyterianism in America, I like to use a chart that outlines the different denominations and when they were formed: the schisms, the occasional unifications, the schisms-within-schisms. It’s complex.
Someday, I’ll lay this chart out for Will, but I’ll have to wait for him to get over his fear of spider webs. There’s a great cartoon of a similar chart on a chalkboard in a classroom with the teacher saying: “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.”
“Jesus is so lucky to have us.”
Almost five hundred years and somewhere around 30,000 new denominations later, we are still talking about what Martin Luther did on “All Hallows’ Eve” (the day before All Saints’ Day) in 1517. On the door of All Saints’ chapel at the University of Wittenburg, Luther posted a protest of the Church: “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences” or the “Ninety-Five Theses.”
The background to this event was complex, and the Reformation of the Church that swept Europe over the next 130 years was even more complex. But the predominant issue on Luther’s mind on that date was the sale of “indulgences.” The understanding of grace by the Church at the time was an incremental one. You received grace for your original sin and all of your other sins at baptism. Sins after baptism needed more grace, and you received this grace within the church through the seven sacraments – especially the regular sacraments of communion and confession. The Church taught that if you died with minor (or “venial”) sins, your soul had to be purified in Purgatory to make you holy enough to enter Heaven. But there was another way to “spring” your soul – or the soul of a loved one – out of Purgatory. You could buy an “indulgence,” and the Church would absolve the sin.
Luther objected to this as something not found in Holy Scripture. In 1521, he was excommunicated, but the shockwaves were already spreading throughout Europe. Indeed, they reverberate to Cumberland Presbyterians today. Luther’s protest within the Church became the Protestant Reformation.
It is certainly right to mourn the schism of the last half-millennium, and we should, like Christ, desire the unity of the whole Church. Yet, it is also right for us to lovingly pursue the truth of the gospel as revealed in Holy Scripture. In trying to understand how we got here, Derek and I will be looking at the five summary statements, the “Five Solae,” for why Protestants broke away from the Roman Church. We will look at the “formal cause” – sola scriptura, Scripture alone – which was how Luther justified himself in protesting the teachings of the Church at all. And we will look at the content of his protest itself, that we are saved sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria – through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. May Christ bless his Church and help us to better understand his gospel. Amen.